We share in our human psyche an energy that repels, abhors and rejects pain, trauma and suffering. It’s something that all of us share as human beings. Of course, there are the minority who actually like suffering and pain, and look for ways not only to have pain in their lives, but to have it in ways that are bizarre and totally unconventional. While calling these people psychologically maladjusted and weird seems a tad unkind and generalising, a lot of these behaviours are no doubt really self-destructing. I recall watching a documentary some months back about people who subject themselves to strange rituals that inflict pain, and the conclusion was that those people were actually sought the ‘high’ that comes from the pain, and had not really sought the pain for pain’s sake.
Here in the States, one only needs to watch one segment any television commercials, and one will encounter a slew of ads for painkillers offering some form of pain relief, from back-pain, to muscle-aches to headaches. It makes me wonder if this nation is obsessed with numbing or escaping some sort of pain and discomfort as a whole. It’s not necessarily a bad thing I guess. After all, people are known to work or studies better if they are rid of their stabbing nerve aches or back pain. I cannot but laugh silently to myself whenever I see these commercials, because half of the commercial is spent on spewing out at breakneck speed the possible side-effects that these pills and medicines can have on the consumer, often with the words ‘cancer’, or ‘high blood pressure’ or ‘death’ mentioned. It is obvious that medication is never without its risks. But the caveat emptor is always there to protect the seller.
But there are, to be sure, other kinds of pains that are not easily treatable with medication - oral or otherwise. These are the pains that come with life. The disappointments of broken friendship and relationships, the failures of endeavours that started out with every good intention, the reality that a good outcome in most things necessarily entails hard work and sacrifice, and the fact that in life, one is not going to be loved and accepted by everybody. From our Catholic vista or perspective, I guess there is one phrase that is a cover-all for this – redemptive suffering. It gives us as a Body of Christ, a sacred way of dealing with these pains when they come along. And it entails that we constantly remind ourselves that this life is not just for ourselves, and that we are not in the world, existent in the universe for ourselves. There is a bigger and far more immense reality than meets our tiny eye.
That Jesus came into our humanity to share in it in the most real and vivid way shows us that each of our sufferings can have a transformative character, if only we would have the same attitude that Christ had. Our sufferings won’t be transformative (for ourselves or for anyone else, for that matter) if we are not willing to consciously join our sufferings with sufferings of Christ. Because his suffering was universally redemptive, our sufferings would also have (at least in some tiny way) some redemptive value for the world. But sitting in pool of self-pitying mud and wallowing in it has little if no redemptive value at all.
Of course this is far easier said than done. Even when I am in a period of pain and uncertainty, when it is dark (perhaps even literally, as in the coming long dark winter months), I do sometimes want it to end, and to end swiftly. What we often cannot appreciate is that there is a learning that comes with staying in that pain, with journeying with that load, and with the sitting in the darkness in patience and solitude. Strangely, it is when we expedite our exit from these moments too quickly with whatever panacea we can get our hands on, that we really end up cheating ourselves from a much better result if we had only waited and learnt patience and some form of ascesis. That’s when we need to pray as Jesus did at Gethsemane ‘Father, take this cup away from me, but if it is your will, let it be done, not mine’. We have not learnt deeply enough that in life, quick fixes are often only a temporary solution (or welcome distraction) that do not bring much conversion and metanoia to our lives.
Most of us do not live in the luxury of being pain-free in all areas of our lives. We struggle and cope with some form of pain and discomfort on some level, but some of us just either don’t admit it, or talk about it. Whether we do or not does not matter. What really matters is that we challenge ourselves to grow more and more spiritually mature when faced with these pains and sufferings.
Each 40-day period of Lent and the 5 weeks of Advent are a very real reminder to us that there is going to be a period of waiting, a period of ‘gestation’, and a period of patience-learning in life before life really can be celebrated in its fullest joy.
No, life as a Catholic Christian is not about being a self-inflicting, pain-seeking masochist. In fact, it is just the other way around. It is learning to see with a different set of eyes what goodness can be seen in dimness when we adjust to a new level of light, illumined by the light of Christ.